Caves are dark. No, I’m serious. They’re dark. Imagine the darkest thing you’ve ever experienced (no, not Dick Cheney’s soul), and multiply that by 1,000. THAT’S how dark it is in an underground cave.
We discovered this after we made some calls and headed into Mammoth Cave for the first time to interview Vicky Carson, head of PR for the Park. She was integral in helping us get some footage for our trip and helping us learn about the cave system. Michelle and I had Vicki take us to a spot in the cave where tours weren’t going, and we had her spill her guts with everything she knew about the cave.
We learned so much! A few of the cooler things:
- Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world.
- Mammoth Cave has over 390 (surveyed) miles.
- The cave system became a National Park in 1941.
- The cave is home to over 200 species of animals, and 12 species of bats.
- The first known people in the cave were Native Americans some six thousand years ago.
- Over 500,000 people visit Mammoth Cave National Park each year.
Anyway, after our informative interview with Vicki we started looking at all of the cave tours we could do and there was one that stuck out to Michelle. It was the Wild Cave Tour. Now, I’m a little claustrophobic (I think), so I was a little freaked out that she wanted to do this, but I think I could handle it. I’m a man, after all. A worrisome man, but I could do it if pressed…possibly.
However, I was RELIEVED to hear that we needed rugged boots to do the tour (which we don’t have), so we lucked out on that one! I mean, dang it. That’s a bummer…I’m sad…
We were then pointed in the direction of the National Speleological Society (NSS), who happened to be in town for their annual week-long cave restoration camp (yes, there is a camp for people who clean up caves). Us, being huge moochers, thought this would be a perfect opportunity to score some free info about the cave and caving from these people and possibly have a place to camp for the night.
Well, one night turned into five, and we were lucky enough to be able to stay with the NSS every night and enjoy their hospitality and learn about why these people love crawling into the unknown parts of the underworld. It was a blast seeing doctors, lawyers, journalists, teenagers, and former prison guards all meeting up for this week of caving and camaraderie! Some were experienced cavers, some were caving enthusiasts, and some were highly claustrophobic, but tricked their minds into believing they were running/crawling away from danger so they could still enjoy caves.
We only spent two days with the entire group of campers, but by the end we felt like we had known them for a long time, and they treated us like old friends. They let us eat, sleep, and hang out with them in the cave like we were their own. They wrote us volunteer badges and took us with them to help with the restoration effort. They showed us cool things on the paths inside the cave like they were showing tourists around (which we kinda were), and we were laughing the entire time while doing it.
The camp Patriarch, Larry Matiz, regaled us with the story of Max Kemper, a German soldier who came over here and convinced a local farmer to exchange food and a place to sleep with him mapping the cave. And the dude mapped the cave. In fact, Kemper drew such a detailed map of the cave that it’s still used today, and it was over 100 years ago!
If you haven’t gone to Mammoth Cave yet, you have to go at some point in your life. It’s big, beautiful, and only exists in Kentucky at this grand scale. The superlative “…est in the world” doesn’t apply to much in the USA (at least geologically speaking), so you should definitely go visit it. There are stalagmites, stalactites, bats, crickets, and gypsum; all beautiful structures to make your visit worth while.
It was a new experience for us to shoot in an environment like that as well. We got to play around with long exposures, learn how to best utilize shooting in low light situations, and learn how to get cave dirt out of a focus ring on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (my fault). In addition to having to watch out for cave dirt, you must also be aware that when you leave the cave, the temperature difference will IMMEDIATELY fog up the lens and could affect the camera. So keep that in mind if you shoot in a cave. Keep it in a bag and introduce it gradually into the different environment, much like putting a new fish into a fish tank.
Rick Olsen, a park ecologist, was also nice enough to let us tag along with him and Dr. Rick Toomey as they experimented with surveying the map for a cave radio system. They had omni-directional transmitters and used us as go-betweens to relay messages if their transmitters were sending and receiving data. We also got to go off route a few times and see some non-tourist areas, which is always fun. I personally got to go back with Dr. Toomey into the non-LED-lit recesses of the cave while we waited for a radio signal to show up on his radio box. The ceiling was low, and there was an eerie lack of sound back in there.
In addition to all the fun we were having during the day learning about the cave and helping with the restoration efforts, the nighttime festivities were also great! A caver named Gary brought his guitar, another caver Greg brought a keyboard and trombone, and together they played songs until they got told to shut it down. I also got to play along with them with my backpacker guitar (thanks Bitonti) for a few songs, and we had a blast while singing and drinking some beer.
By the time our short stint at Mammoth Cave ended, we were stuffed full of knowledge (and food) from the few days of entertainment with the NSS and the National Park Service. We learned about the bat population, the white nose syndrome that’s affecting the bat population around the country, and we also learned what the park is doing to combat this disease that’s wiping them out in massive numbers. In addition to bats, the cave system is home to a species of eyeless fish and eyeless albino shrimp, which are white see-through, and the only place in the world they can be seen is Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave! Side note: as a result of the NSS’s work in removing pieces of rotted wood from the river Styx underneath the cave, more and more of these creatures have been spotted living in the more healthy waters.
If there’s one thing that we’d like to take away from our experience among the people who like to crawl into dark places underground, it’s that even though they may be into something that is a little different and “out there,” they’re actually some of the most soft-spoken and quiet people we’ve ever met. When you think of a “caver,” you think of some looney bastard who runs head-first into a large opening in the earth, armed only with a flashlight and a thirst for adventure. We imagined that these people would be energetic maniacs who are crazy in their pursuit for hidden passageways and belly crawling to find sunlight, when in reality they are pragmatic, deep-thinkers who really invest into their buddha-like experiences while in and around the cave. They seem to find it cathartic. Caves are their therapy, and are really the place that they feel just as comfortable if not MORE comfortable as they are above the surface. We’ll never forget this rag-tag bunch of Speleology wonder-people!
And whatever you do, DO NOT call them “Spelunkers.” As the most well-known bumper sticker reads, “Cavers rescue Spelunkers.”